Adrian has another post up responding to some remarks I made earlier, focusing, in particular, on a remark I made about mice. In my post on the externality of relations I wrote that a mouse launched into outer space thereby dying as a result of falling into a vacuum is still a mouse. Just as Sylvester the Cat from Loony Toons liked to say “I love those meeces to pieces!”, I confess that I am deeply tickled by the example of “meeces” in space (I wish I’d come up with this example first, but unfortunately Morton beat me to it in Ecology Without Nature). Here I was pleased to see that our brilliant brat (her term, not mine) and outstanding novelist, Francis Madeson caught the joke. Quoting me, Madeson goes on to write:

“That local manifestation is dependent on relations to be sure, but the substantiality of the mouse remains, though perhaps it has lost some of its singularities.”

This may be the drollest understatement ever. Angry and pretentious? Au contraire, Paul. Joyful and life affirming. Some of us can and do learn necessary profundities from roadkill.

Quite right. Ivikhiv, however, finds this example deeply troubling (as it’s intended to be… not to mention strange!) and a symptom of what is wrong with triple-o. As Adrian writes in his most recent post,

To make a larger point about what Whiteheadians and other process-relational folks find most attractive about that tradition, which is, in part, the way it subverts a very prominent and well established way of thinking about the universe (which I characterized as Newtonian) and, in turn, proposes a fundamentally different one. In that different view, I don’t think it would be possible to say that a mouse shot out into space is still a mouse, because the definition of a mouse would include the kinds of processes (or “procedures”, to use Bogost’s term) that make up mouseness, and that mouse would no longer have any of them. It’s mouse-like form would start decaying quickly, and any internality that was characteristic of the mouse as a whole would no longer be there. To put it in OOO terms, once that internality has withdrawn from the mouse, it has withdrawn for good. (Of course, we can argue about whether the mouse’s fur, its teeth, its spleen, etc., have their own internalities, their own withdrawability. Whitehead would probably say that the “society,” the mouse assemblage, is no longer there, but that other actual occasions may continue. Those don’t constitute a mouse — except for someone looking at it from the outside who thinks it’s a mouse because it still has fur, teeth, and other mouse-like features, for a while.)

My thesis, of course, is such a claim confuses a quality of a mouse with the substantiality of a mouse. What is the mouse argument designed to do? It is designed to show that the existence of mice is dependent on a set of relations to a milieu. The idea is that in order for a mouse to be a mouse, there must be oxygen, a certain sort of gravity, a certain range of temperatures, etc. If the mouse’s being, in order to be a mouse, is dependent on all of these relations to other objects, then the being of the mouse is inextricably bound up with relations such that it cannot exist apart from these relations.

read on!

My rejoinder is that no, life doesn’t constitute the substantiality of a mouse, but is only a quality or local manifestation of objects. As I argued in my previous post, local manifestations are relational through and through. Ivakhiv will find no argument from me against the thesis that the local manifestation of life as a quality is dependent on all sorts of relations with other objects. However, it doesn’t follow from this that life constitutes the substantiality of our poor mouse. Life is just a quality— a local manifestation –that those substances known as meeces might happen to actualize.

Now I realize all of this is very strange. Perhaps I wouldn’t be inclined to make such odd remarks if my mother hadn’t died on the operating table and come back to life (in her near death experience, being a good Catholic girl, she went to hell, not heaven) and if my partner didn’t regularly bring people back to life on the operating table in her medical work. Moreover, perhaps I wouldn’t be inclined to say this if I weren’t aware that scientists have learned how to kill frogs and bring them back to life after they are dead. Indeed, I wouldn’t be inclined to say such things if I weren’t aware that people who die from hypothermia are later brought back to life. Yet I am aware that all of these things take place. Metaphysically we must account for this possibility. And unless Ivakhiv wishes to argue that my mother is no longer my mother because life constitutes the substantiality of her being, she died, and therefore lost her being, then I would hope he would concede that life is a local manifestation of certain substances and not a predicate of the virtual proper being of substances. “You attacking my mum, Ivakhiv?!? You callin’ my mum a zombie?!?” (shakes fist).

Now notice that Adrian seems to conflate two distinct issues: the temporal endurance of objects and their substantiality. Adrian rightly points out that a dead mouse begins to degenerate rather quickly (in my language, it falls prey, in most circumstances where it has locally manifested itself as dead (when frozen this isn’t necessarily the case), very quickly to entropy). Therefore, unless a substances that has locally manifested itself as dead is a tardegrade or preserved in optimal cryogenic states, the window in which it can locally manifest itself as alive once again is very small. However, it’s important to note that the time-scale in which a substance endures has no bearing in whether or not a substance is, in fact, a substance. Substances can come into being and pass out of being in instances beneath the minimal thinkable or experienciable time, but are no less substances for that. The fact that the “half-life” of mice might be very short once they no longer locally manifest the quality of life has no bearing on whether or not the mouse remains that mouse substance after it has ceased to be alive. As I’ve argued, objects are perpetually disintegrating or fighting entropy. All Ivakhiv’s point entails is that our poor former mouse has now become a plurality of substances.

Additionally, and Ian, no doubt, will chime in here if I’ve gotten him wrong, the operational perspective, the thesis that the internal world of objects is composed of operations, is different than the thesis that objects are operating. Inasmuch as I understand Bogost, the thesis is only that objects are composed of operations. This, however, is a far cry from the thesis that objects are operating. These operations, perhaps, would be what I call “virtual proper being” (Ian suggested that there’s a close proximity between us in his Claremont talk). But it is not the case that an object must be operating to have operations. Qua substance, my computer is no less a computer when it is turned off than when it is turned on. Rather, at this point we would say that the operations of the object are dormant. Indeed, it is because the operations of an object can be dormant, because an object contains submergent qualities, that we need to engage in experimentalism. As Spinoza says, we don’t know what an object can do.

For my money– and, of course, I’m partial –object-oriented ontology actually does a better job of thinking relations than process relational views. I’ve made this argument to Ivakhiv on a number of occasions, but so far he hasn’t bitten. If this is the case, then it is because the careful separation of the substantiality of substance and local manifestation encourages us to attend to what relations make a difference and how they make a difference. And, as I argued in my externality of relations post, the relationists were right to draw our attention to the role played by relations in local manifestations, underlining the manner in which properties aren’t intrinsic features of a substance in the old subject/predicate logic, yet wrong to thereby reduce substances to their relations. What I’ve tried to suggest to my friend Adrian in the past is a subtle change of emphasis. In these debates I’ve tried to argue that the concern of ecology is not relation per se, but rather those relations that make a difference. If we look at the practice of ecotheorists (as opposed to their theorizations of their practice), we see them exploring not relations as such, but rather what local manifestations take place when relations are shifted. For example, the ecologist is interested in what changes or local manifestations occur when natural gas is released into a particular creek or drinking water. Yet here what we’re interested in is a split between virtual proper being and local manifestations, or the demonic powers unleashed when a substance enters into new relations. Process relational thought ends up obscuring all this by virtue of treating objects as relational from the outset and through the vacuous claim that everything is related to everything else, turning us away from the experimentalist perspective that asks us to attend to what local manifestations occur when these relations come into being.